This section provides important Cape-wide information about:
As a fragile coastal peninsula, Cape Cod has a finite capacity to accommodate development and simultaneously maintain the healthy human and natural environments upon which the region’s economy depends. Early development on Cape Cod centered in dense villages surrounded by less-developed outlying areas. During the last century, however, Cape Cod’s natural beauty, recreational opportunities, and proximity to major urban areas have attracted a rapid increase in population to village centers and outlying areas. The majority of the development outside village centers uses on-site wastewater disposal, which releases nitrogen to groundwater and impacts our water resources.
The cost of off-site wastewater infrastructure depends largely on the amount, kind, and pattern of development to be served. Wastewater infrastructure must be sized not only to treat current needs, but also to support future growth. For this assessment, we completed an inventory of current development and a Cape-wide buildout analysis to better understand existing and future needs.
Cape Cod has a Sole Source Aquifer that is susceptible to contamination. The quality of public water supply remains excellent due to wellhead protection efforts. Alternative sources of water may be required for high-density areas with private wells, which are not protected in the same manner.
Freshwater ponds on Cape Cod are evidence of the aquifer’s water table. Nutrients, primarily phosphorous (which comes from wastewater, road runoff, fertilizers, and accumulated sediments), can cause eutrophication of freshwater ponds. Many of these ponds are already impacted by excess phosphorous. Addressing marine water quality may present opportunities to also protect freshwater quality.
Marine water is susceptible to eutrophication from excess nitrogen. Nitrogen in human wastewater is not removed by a septic system so it passes to the groundwater, which then flows to coastal embayments and impairs water quality. Significant volumes of septic system nitrogen in wastewater must be removed to achieve Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) compliance and restore coastal water quality.
The time it takes for water to travel completely through the aquifer is less than 10 years in a majority of the watersheds. We have an opportunity to restore water quality within one generation's time if we act now.
Various levels of government cooperate in regulating the impact of wastewater sources on drinking water, freshwater ponds, and marine water. The federal government regulates water quality under the Clean Water Act, which requires states to establish water quality standards to protect the use(s) designated for that water body. The Clean Water Act regulates point sources of pollution through the issuance of permits that are jointly enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. No federal law, at present, regulates non-point sources of pollution, such as on-site septic systems. The existing tools available to support the enforcement of water quality standards are imperfect resources for managing diffuse, non-point source pollution.
Under the current regulatory environment, Cape Cod towns have wrestled individually to manage the effects of nitrogen from septic systems on water quality. The towns each develop a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan that is jointly reviewed by the Cape Cod Commission, under the Cape Cod Regional Policy Plan, and by the state, under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act. In many cases, this process is inappropriate for watersheds that are shared between two or more towns, which is the most common situation on Cape Cod.
In this section, you will learn about the existing regulatory and planning mechanisms available for water quality protection and how they interact with one another.
Wastewater management planning has been an integral part of Cape Cod’s earliest water-quality protection efforts. Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plans (CWMPs) are required of communities to gain access to federally subsidized funds from the State Revolving Fund (SRF) Loan program under the Water Pollution Abatement Trust. A major goal of the trust is to provide incentives to communities to undertake projects with meaningful water quality and public health benefits, addressing community and watershed needs. Each Cape Cod town is in a different stage of planning, but all are engaged. This section provides information on the status of local CWMPs and identifies some appropriate next steps.